In this case, even vegetarians should consider the pescatarian option
Note to readers: This article is adapted from my forthcoming book, "The Seafood Prescription: Live a Healthier, Happier, Longer Life with Nature’s Perfect Food".
You'll see several haiku poems that reflect the spirit of the content they accompany. Each was composed by a Vital Choice customer for haiku contests we’ve held in past years. (A haiku is a three-line poem, usually with a five-seven-five syllable format.)
As the founders — and original advocates of — Vital Choice Wild Seafood & Organics, my wife Carla and I have attended many health/nutrition conferences over the past 17 years.
We’ve met many vegans and vegetarians, some of whom — after sampling our wild salmon and hearing from us about its health benefits — said they would consider adding fish to their diet.
And some — including a few prominent advocates of vegan or vegetarian diets — later told us that they became pescatarians, either openly or secretly. (A pescatarian is someone who doesn’t eat meat but does eat fish or other seafood.)
For example, complementary-medicine pioneer and best-selling author Andrew Weil, MD — founder/director of Arizona State University’s Center for Integrative Medicine — switched from a vegetarian to a pescatarian diet years ago.
As Dr. Weil said, “I’m a big fan of salmon. In fact, I gave up being a vegetarian because I didn’t want to miss out on this fish, with its great flavor and health benefits.”
And in Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, the Apple co-founder's daughter Lisa relates how she once accompanied her father to Japan. Normally a very strict vegetarian, her father ate sushi on this and other Japan trips, reportedly saying, “besides having a great taste, it comes with many health benefits.”
Indeed, the Mediterranean diet — which includes ample seafood — consistently ranks among the healthiest in the world. And dozens of large population studies link other diets high in seafood to better heart, brain and overall health.
People who adopt a vegan or vegetarian diet usually have admirable reasons for that decision.
But I believe that vegetarians who choose to avoid animal foods for health, ethical and/or ecological reasons should consider consuming wild Alaskan salmon, which addresses these and other common concerns.
A naughty vegan
Meets sumptuous swimmer
‘Tis love at first bite.
— Haiku by Dawn Davis
These are my top reasons why a pescatarian diet featuring wild salmon (and other high-quality seafood) can serve your body, brain, and planet even better than a vegetarian diet — while being a smart prescription for helping ensure optimal health and possibly for helping ease what ails you!
TOP 7 REASONS TO EAT WILD SALMON
Below this list, you’ll see a more detailed exploration of each reason:
- Wild salmon ranks high among the healthiest, most nutrient-dense “superfoods” on earth, providing key brain and body-building nutrients lacking in many vegetarian and vegan diets.
- Wild salmon are among the purest, safest, and richest sources of protein, vitamin D, minerals, and powerfully healthful omega-3 fats, which explains why it is widely recommended by nutrition and health experts around the globe.
- Wild salmon — especially Alaskan salmon — are among the most sustainably produced, “super-green” foods, recommended as a “best choice” by virtually every credible environmental organization.
- Wild salmon are among the most nutritious natural foods on earth, having sustained humans and more than a hundred other species for eons.
- Wild salmon live their lives as nature intended and are only caught near the end of their natural lifecycle.
- Eating wild salmon directly empowers fishing families who are their most potent political allies (choosing farmed salmon undermines them).
- Wild salmon and other high-quality fish and shellfish are delicious, easily digested, cook quickly, and come fresh-frozen or canned, from reputable stores and online vendors.
1. HEALTH: Wild salmon are extremely “nutrient-dense”
Wild salmon is one the most nutrient-dense and broadly nourishing foods on earth.
“Seafood is the most nutrient-dense food you can feed your family, and “nutrient-dense” is the highest honor you can pay any food.” — William Sears, MD, Author of more than 40 books on child and family health (www.askdrsears.com)
Like many other seafoods, it provides lots of easily digestible protein and high levels of at least five brain-essential minerals: iodine, iron, copper, zinc, and selenium.
And wild salmon is a uniquely rich source of vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids, most notably omega-3 DHA and EPA, which are lacking in land-based foods.
Omega-3 DHA and EPA are essential to key body and brain functions, to child development, and to the structure and workings of every cell in the body.
While the body can convert the sole plant-source omega-3 fatty acid called ALA into very small amounts of essential omega-3 EPA and DHA, that process is extremely inefficient. And the extreme excess of omega-6 fatty acids in the standard American diet — mostly from cheap vegetable oils — further reduces that low conversion rate.
For more on these critical topics, see our Omega-3 Facts & Sources page and our Omega-3/6 Balance page, with its "Out of Balance" video featuring leading omega-3 and brain researchers.
Countless studies link common chronic diseases and mental disorders to the rampant deficiency of omega-3 fatty acids in the standard American diet. (See Women's Shocking Omega-3 Shortfall, Omega-3s from Fish Linked to Healthier Aging, Omega-3 Deficiency May Cause 90,000-Plus Deaths Annually, and the many omega-3/health studies summarized in our news archive.)
Depression and neurological diseases are epidemic due in part to a lack of fishy omega-3s and other brain-essential nutrients in the Western diet. That's why leading researchers consider seafood — especially fatty, cold-water fish like wild salmon and sardines — the ultimate “brain food”. Click here to view a short video about this topic.
“Inflammation is the silent killer that has eluded the medical community for years.” — Michael Roizen MD, Chairman, Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute
Chronic, imperceptible inflammation is a root cause of all the major diseases of aging — cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, arthritis, some cancers and more. Omega-3 fatty acids have been called the master controllers of inflammation. (See Aspirin Mimics a Fishy Omega-3 and Silent but Deadly Threat: Inflammation.)
Among popular diets around the world those featuring ample seafood are among the healthiest. “Blue Zones” are regions known for the healthiest, longest living populations. These tend to be island or coastal regions with plentiful seafood (Greece, Italy, Okinawa, Japan and California.)
“The only thing that health authorities seem to agree on are that fish is healthy and Twinkies are not.” — John Durant, author of The Paleo Manifesto
A study published in 2015 found that pescatarians were 27% less likely to develop colon cancer, compared to vegetarians. And the authors of the study suggested that the apparent colon-protective properties of omega-3 fatty acids could explain that risk reduction (Orlich MJ et al. 2015).
Fresh from the cool sea
to restore body and mind
nature's healer comes
— Haiku by Ginny Eash
2. SAFETY: Wild salmon ranks among the purest fish
Around the world, fish-eating populations tend to be the healthiest and longest living.
Fish-eating cultures typically have lower infant mortality rates and children exhibit better neurodevelopmental outcomes. (Click here to see our Healthy Mom & Baby page, which provides key facts about the role of fish in child safety and development.)
The largest such study, which involved a highly vulnerable population of more than 14,000 mother-child pairs, was led by clinical psychiatrist CAPT Joseph Hibbeln M.D., of the US National Institutes of Health (see Findings Verify Safety and Value of Higher Maternal Fish Intake).
Dr. Hibbeln and his co-authors came to very positive conclusions:
- “Mothers who reported no seafood intake often had the greatest risk of suboptimum outcomes.”
- “95% of children in America are not reaching their full IQ potential because their moms did not consume enough fish during pregnancy.”
- “We’ve assessed the FDA advisory (to limit fish consumption) and concluded that it causes the harm it’s intended to prevent.”
Of course, there are exceptions to the general rule that common, commercial fish species are perfectly safe — and actively healthful — to eat, even for expecting mothers and young children:
Fish can bioaccumulate trace levels of impurities over their lives, so the fish to avoid are large, long-living predatory fish like shark, swordfish, marlin, and large tuna.
In contrast, the safest seafood will be that which is short-lived and feeds near the bottom of the food chain.
Wild salmon fit that description, as they live on average only 2-4 years, and several subspecies — sockeye, pink and chum — eat near the bottom of the food chain, consuming primarily zooplankton, small squid and fish. Even wild king salmon, which eat somewhat higher in the food chain, don’t contain significantly higher levels of mercury or man-made contaminants.
The consistent finding that wild salmon are very low in contaminants explains why, in their advice to pregnant and nursing women, the Alaska Department of Health recommends unrestricted consumption of all five species of Alaska salmon.
To learn more about the safety of ocean fish, browse the Mercury & Health Issues section of our website’s news archive. Some of the articles there explain why the greater amount of selenium versus mercury in almost all ocean fish probably accounts for their clear, unambiguous safety and healthfulness.
3. SUSTAINABILITY: Salmon fishing is regulated stringently
Wild Alaskan salmon are among the most sustainably produced foods on the planet.
In fact, fish from well-managed wild fisheries — like Alaska's salmon fisheries— are among the world’s most eco-friendly foods.
“The most well-tended organic garden takes a far greater toll on native biodiversity than well managed wild fisheries.” — Prof. Ray Hilborn, College of the Environment, University of Washington
The chart below shows the average annual environmental impact of (from left to right) conventionally farmed pork, chicken, beef, sheep/goats and wild-capture fisheries, in terms of their impacts on use of water, fertilizer, pesticides, and antibiotics, soil loss, and CO2 production.
As you can see, the impacts of wild fisheries are vanishingly small compared with those of conventionally produced meat and poultry:
The eco impact of wild salmon is so small because they feed on ocean plants and animals, and their harvest uses relatively small amounts of non-renewable resources — fuel for fishing boats and land transport, and electricity for freezers.
Wild salmon runs in Alaska are well-managed and healthy, and in recent years sockeye salmon returns to the Bristol Bay region have been at historically high levels. This is a testament to Alaska’s science-based fishery management system, and to the state’s founding constitution, which dictates that all fisheries will be managed on a sustainable yield basis.
As a result, Alaska’s salmon fisheries are certified sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council and considered sustainable by many other credible environmental organizations, including the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program, which ranks it as a “Best Choice”.
“Alaskan salmon fisheries are considered a model for sustainability.” — the Safina Center
Salmon fisheries in Alaska are controlled by biologists, who monitor the returning fish to ensure that enough are allowed to “escape” the fishing fleet and pass into their birth river to spawn and thereby perpetuate the salmon run.
A particular river’s target “escapement” goal is the optimum number of fish that can be accommodated by its available spawning habitat. Fishery managers will not permit commercial fishing to occur until they are confident that enough fish are returning to meet this goal.
“The fish in Alaska have constitutional rights that trump the rights of human beings in Alaska.” — Mark Buckley” Alaska Fisheries Biologist, Founder, Digital Observer Program
During my fishing career the river I fished had an annual escapement goal of two million salmon, but in some years up to ten times that many would return. If not for the efforts of commercial fisherman, those millions of surplus salmon threatened to overwhelm the fragile spawning ecosystem, causing survival rates of that year’s juveniles to plummet.
A few salmon caught
Many others left behind
Feed our grandchildren
—Haiku by Adrienne Haladyna
4. WILD BY NATURE: A truly natural food
For sound scientific reasons, most nutrition experts recommend whole, natural, unprocessed foods that are organically grown or sustainably sourced.
Wild salmon are one of the last, truly wild, naturally “organic” foods. Ironically, current USDA regulations don’t allow wild seafood to be labeled “organic”, while farmed salmon raised under certain conditions can use that label!
Almost all farmed salmon are fed an unnatural diet high in grains or soy, and get treated with and fed pesticides, antibiotics, other veterinary drugs, growth hormones, and artificial colors (synthetic versions of the orange-hued carotenoid called astaxanthin, the natural version of which wild salmon get from eating zooplankton).
Humans have been consuming seafood for at least 165,000 years and probably much longer. Life originated in the sea and evolved on a diet of marine nutrients, which explains why they remain so crucial to every cell in the body — and to the cells of almost every living organism. In contrast, humans developed agriculture about 12,000 years ago … and our brains have been shrinking ever since.
Wild salmon red
True color from the ocean
Mother Nature fed
— Haiku by L. Nelson
5. ANIMAL WELFARE
Unlike livestock — especially the great majority of animals that are raised on factory farms, often in confinement — wild salmon live free to roam and feed as they wish.
Throughout their lifecycle, wild salmon serve as food for more than 130 other species. Salmon that don’t become prey at sea eventually return to their birth rivers, where they will spawn and die, completing their brief two-to-four-year lifecycle.
Nature is not kind. Salmon that do escape fishermen's nets can experience a brutal odyssey of predation, starvation, and slow death. I have often witnessed bears catching and eviscerating live salmon, and it’s common to see scavenging birds pecking the eyes out of spent fish as they lay gasping in the shallows after spawning. A quick demise at the hands of a human predator is humane in comparison.
Surplus salmon allocated to the fishing fleet are caught in their prime while those that swim on to their spawning rivers will stop feeding and begin slowly starving as they live off stored calories.
As a fisherman, I used to revere these beautiful, powerful creatures that came aboard my boat and I felt gratitude for their sacrifice and viewed their end as relatively merciful compared to the arduous journey facing those that swam on.
Such feelings of empathy and reverence aren't shared by the fish, seals, whales, birds, or bears that prey on salmon.
6. EAT WILD TO SAVE WILD
Eating wild salmon is “voting with your fork” to save them.
No one cares about wild salmon as fervently as those whose culture and livelihoods depend upon them. Wild salmon fisheries support independent fishermen and women who are wild salmon’s most passionate political advocates.
Currently, multinational mining interests supported by an extraction-friendly EPA are conspiring to build a massive open-pit mine near Bristol Bay, Alaska. The “Pebble” mine and its mammoth tailings reservoir would decimate the local watershed and forever threaten the largest wild sockeye salmon run in the world. Bristol Bay’s commercial fishermen and women are on the front lines of this battle.
If commercial fishers are unable to make a living catching wild salmon, they will seek work where they can find it, often in gas, oil and mineral extraction industries that can threaten salmon habitat.
The current Bristol Bay Alaska watershed is shown at left, and the image at right shows what it could look like after approval and development of the Pebble Mine:
Learn more and support mine opponents here:
- Trout Unlimited
- Save Bristol Bay
- United Tribes of Bristol Bay
- Businesses for Bristol Bay
- NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council)
7. WILD SALMON IS USER-FRIENDLY
Wild salmon and other high-quality seafood is easy to prepare — and delicious!
Salmon (and seafood in general) have a density near the density of water, resulting in muscle fiber that’s far less dense than land-based alternatives. Seafood typically digests in 30-60 minutes—about the same amount of time it takes to digest an avocado or sweet potato.
In contrast, digesting poultry, beef, and pork can take several hours, making easily digestible seafood one of the most user-friendly sources of premium protein, micronutrients, and fats.
Wild salmon and other fish cook quickly and can go from freezer to dinner plate in as little as 30 minutes, which few people realize so they tend to overcook their fish, rendering it dry, tough and not nearly as good as it could be. A good rule of thumb is to cook wild salmon for 10 minutes per inch of thickness.
Canned wild salmon is another excellent option. It’s precooked, portable, widely available, and an ideal pantry staple. For an easy, healthy, nutrient-dense meal, simply open a can and add some to salads, rice, pasta, or whatever suits your fancy.
At one time, you had to live near the coast or know a fisherman to get quality seafood, but these days the best wild salmon and seafood is only a few mouse-clicks away.
Of course, some seafood vendors are better than others, but a little homework should reveal reliable options – including vitalchoice.com!
Oh fish of the sea
Swimming through cyberspace
One click you are mine
--Haiku by Akiko Kobayashi
- Braconnier D/Phys.org. Farming to blame for our shrinking size and brains. June 15, 2011. Accessed at https://phys.org/news/2011-06-farming-blame-size-brains.html
- CNN Health/Netto J. Vegetarians who eat fish could be greatly reducing their risk of colon cancer. March 13, 201. Accessed at https://www.cnn.com/2015/03/11/health/vegetarians-fish-colon-cancer/index.html
- Food and Drug Administration (FDA). A quantitative assessment of the net effects on fetal neurodevelopment from eating commercial fish. May, 2014. Accessed at https://www.fda.gov/media/88491/download
- Hibbeln JR, Davis JM, Steer C, Emmett P, Rogers I, Williams C, Golding J. Maternal seafood consumption in pregnancy and neurodevelopmental outcomes in childhood (ALSPAC study): an observational cohort study. The Lancet 2007; 369:578-585.
- Marine Stewardship Council. Accessed at https://fisheries.msc.org/en/fisheries/alaska-salmon/
- Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch. Accessed at https://www.seafoodwatch.org/seafood
- Orlich MJ, Singh PN, Sabaté J, Fan J, Sveen L, Bennett H, Knutsen SF, Beeson WL, Jaceldo-Siegl K, Butler TL, Herring RP, Fraser GE. Vegetarian dietary patterns and the risk of colorectal cancers. JAMA Intern Med. 2015 May;175(5):767-76. doi: 10.1001/jamainternmed.2015.59.
- Scientific American. When the Sea Saved Humanity. Accessed at https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/when-the-sea-saved-humanity-2012-12-07/
- State of Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. Fish Consumption Advice for Alaskans: A Risk Management Strategy To Optimize the Public’s Health. Ali K. Hamade, PhD, DABT. Updated July 21, 2014. Accessed at http://dhss.alaska.gov/dph/Epi/eph/Documents/fish/FishConsumptionAdvice2014.pdf
- The Safina Center. Salmon – Alaska. June 15, 2011. Accessed at http://safinacenter.org/seafoods/salmon-alaska/
- University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Department of Physics. Q & A: Density of a fish. 01/25/2011. Accessed at https://van.physics.illinois.edu/qa/listing.php?id=2477&t=density-of-a-fish